- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 7, 2010

On the surface, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s anti-Western flare-up after last week’s visit by President Obama might be dismissed as a minor flap, a verbal clash of political cultures.

But Mr. Karzai lost face during Mr. Obama’s lightning visit. Now, he must show the Afghan people that he is not a puppet of Washington, his protector in the intricate mire of Afghan politics.

This does nothing to help close fissures that are deep and serious. Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai are at odds over the way forward in Afghanistan. The U.S. soon will have 100,000 troops battling militant Taliban insurgents and their al Qaeda allies across the border with Pakistan. Mr. Karzai wants to open negotiations with the Taliban.

A string of testy and threatening statements issued by Mr. Karzai has the White House reconsidering the Afghan leader’s Washington visit on May 12.

Spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters during his daily briefing Tuesday that “we certainly would evaluate whatever continued or further remarks President Karzai makes as to whether that’s constructive to have such a meeting, sure.”

Experts are puzzled about why Mr. Obama would have - so publicly - taken the prickly and mercurial Mr. Karzai to the woodshed, pressing him to do more to battle corruption and cronyism in his government.

The meeting was “mishandled,” said Jessica Matthews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s a bizarre relationship now. Here we are, with Americans fighting and dying for his country, and here we are, too, with the deepest levels of distrust on both sides.”

Mr. Karzai was put in place by President George W. Bush. Since Mr. Obama took office, Mr. Karzai’s stock has fallen. The administration has routinely criticized Mr. Karzai - subliminally or in coded language - for failing to eradicate corruption.

Then, just before Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai met last week in Kabul, U.S. National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones got blunt.

The Afghan president definitely must confront corruption and “be seized with how important that is,” Gen. Jones said.

Mr. Obama stayed just six hours.

Mr. Karzai seethed for three days, then hit back.

In a blistering attack, he lashed out at the U.N. and international community, accusing them of interfering in last year’s fraud-tarnished presidential election and trying to weaken his authority.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley returned the volley, saying, “Karzai has to step forward, lead his government in terms of convincing the international community and the Afghan people that they are taking measurable steps to reduce corruption.”

The White House said it was deeply troubled, and Mr. Karzai and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke by telephone Friday to straighten things out.

But Mr. Karzai wasn’t finished.

Afghan lawmakers said Mr. Karzai, in a subsequent closed-door meeting, twice threatened to join the Taliban insurgency if the U.S. continued pressuring him publicly to do more to end graft, cronyism and electoral fraud.

The While House again voiced consternation.

“On behalf of the American people, we’re frustrated with the remarks,” Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday.

And Mr. Crowley said, “Clearly, you know, what he says does have an impact back here in the United States, and he should choose his words carefully.”

But short of deposing him, the U.S. is stuck with Mr. Karzai, and he knows it.

And while the White House asserts its frustration, Mr. Karzai feels the same way. He and the White House are at loggerheads over tactics for ending the eight-year-old war.

The Afghan leader has been courting some members of the militant Taliban leadership and one powerful warlord, looking for a way to bring them into the government and end fighting on some fronts at least.

The Obama administration is sending 30,000 more American troops into the fight - the total will soon reach 100,000 - to focus on dislodging the Taliban from southern strongholds.

At the same time, the CIA is successfully targeting al Qaeda leaders and foot soldiers who have taken refuge in ungoverned tribal regions across the Pakistan border.

Strikes by the agency’s unmanned aircraft are thinning the ranks of the terrorist group’s leadership and producing chaos in the organization that carried out the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States.

U.S. strategists believe the Taliban, which hosted al Qaeda when it controlled Afghanistan, must be further weakened and discredited in the eyes of the Afghan people. Only then does it make sense to negotiate with the insurgents.

Meanwhile, additional U.S. forces have helped blunt Taliban ground advances and have taken the offensive in recent weeks. American troops had spent years on the defensive against the resilient Taliban, which bounced back after it was driven from power in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Mr. Karzai’s noisy uproar changed locations but not tone Sunday, when he joined U.S. commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal in Kandahar, where U.S. forces are expected to open an offensive in June.

Mr. Karzai finally put his complaint right out in the open, showing the extent of the U.S.-Afghan chasm.

“Afghanistan will be fixed when its people trust that their president is independent and not a puppet,” Mr. Karzai declared to an assembly of tribal leaders. “We have to demonstrate our sovereignty. We have to demonstrate that we are standing up for our values.”

Mr. Karzai hasn’t blinked. Nor has the Obama White House in what has become a test of wills, a matter of pride and bets about which side holds the stronger hand.

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